What’s The Difference Between German And Japanese Chef Knives?

May 1, 2019

Category: Gear

There is a lot of gear in the world (a massive understatement, we know), but in some industries, there’s a clearcut winner at the top of the pile. For instance, there are a lot of oral hygiene products, but the simple toothbrush is very clearly the most popular of them all. Conversely, some item types are so abundant, it would be impossible to pick out a frontrunner — motor vehicles come to mind. Every so often, however, two classes of gear seem almost deadlocked with no clear winner, especially when regional differences come into play.

In this case, we’re looking at kitchen knives. While there are a lot of options on the market that hail from around the world, the two most prevalent and, therefore, most popular are German and Japanese. Similar in their overall purpose, German and Japanese chef knives typically have a number of noteworthy differences that alter their value depending on the user’s needs and preferences. While there aren’t any specific standards in how and why they’re made, there are a few traditions and conventions that should be paid attention to when picking between the two regional types. We outline and weigh them against one another in our following German vs. Japanese chef knives guide.

Terms You Should Know

Knife Glossary

Before we get started, there are a few bits of terminology with which you should familiarize yourself to fully understand the difference between these two blade varieties. From tip to butt, knife terminology is straightforward once you’re keyed into it, but it can be a bit intimidating to those who are unfamiliar. This simple glossary will give you the edge you need when it comes to analyzing knives of any sort — be they kitchen, everyday carry, or otherwise.

Blade: The most important part of any knife, the blade makes up everything from the top of the handle to the tip of the knife. Typically made from steel, the blade is the part of the knife that does the cutting.

Bolster: Though not present on every knife, bolsters are quite common on kitchen knives. Sometimes an extension of the blade (and, thereby, made from steel) and sometimes added toward the end of the construction process (often made of brass or similar materials), the bolster is the thick piece of material at the meeting point of the blade and the handle, which serves to increase the meeting point’s strength and durability.

Edge: Most simply, the edge is the sharpest part of the knife that extends from the tip down toward the handle. With kitchen knives, the edge is almost always either straight or serrated across its entirety. However, with everyday carry knives and outdoor-focused blades, combination blades (which are part straight and part serrated) are common.

Grind: This refers to the angle at which the blade’s edge is sharpened. A higher number means a more abrupt edge, while a lower number is more gradual. There are also a number of different shapes a grind could have — each with their own purpose, benefits, and drawbacks. With kitchen knives, the grind is almost always symmetrical (the same on both sides) or chisel-ground (meaning it is sharp only on one side).

Handle: While not quite as important as the blade, the handle is still an essential part of the knife, as it’s the part the user holds. With kitchen knives, handles are often made from wood, metal, or even synthetic materials. The shape of a handle can also determine the versatility, utility, and ergonomics of a knife. For instance, longer handles offer more leverage, whereas shorter handles offer more precise control. Similarly, the overall thickness of a handle can impact its usefulness — thicker handles offering greater sturdiness but also make them harder to manipulate.

Steel: A historically-significant metal made from a combination of iron and carbon that serves as the primary blade material for the entire knifemaking industry. Not all knives are made with steel blades — there are some made out of ceramic — but, by and large, most knives are made of some kind of steel. Other elements are often added to the steel in different amounts to imbue it with alternative properties — like increased corrosion resistance or edge retention — but the primary elements are always iron and carbon, respectively.

Tang: The piece of the blade that extends into the handle of a knife, the tang starts at a knife’s bolster and ends somewhere within the handle itself. If this part extends the entirety of the length of the handle, it is called a full tang. Typically, full tangs are the strongest and most durable variety, but they also add quite a bit of weight to a blade.

Blade Purpose

Precision vs. Productivity

You can learn a lot about the intended purpose of a knife by the shape of its blade. Length, thickness, edge angle, and geometry can all affect how you use that knife — or at least the intended use per the knife’s designer and manufacturer. While there is some variation in both Japanese and German offerings, many of them do share a number of common characteristics. We’ve outlined them below.

German: Typically, German kitchen knives feature a rounded geometry (from tip to bolster) with a relatively wide blade angle in the range of 20-degrees. The curved nature of these blades speaks to their intended workhorse utility — meaning they’re easy to use for voluminous cutting tasks — like chopping or dicing — in which precision is less important than speed and quantity. The angle geometry serves to back this up, as a 20-degree edge, while not razor-sharp, holds up to extended usage. Similarly, German knives often feature a thick and sturdy bolster, as well as a full tang — making them ideal for long stretches of cutting, but less useful when it comes to clean, precise cuts. If its a workhorse blade you’re looking for, German-made might be your best bet.

Japanese: Often, Japanese knives have a straighter geometry with little-to-no curvature and a much steeper edge angle in the 12-degree range. Whereas a rounded geometry is better for long, repetitive chopping and slicing tasks, a straight edge is far better for detail-oriented precision cutting tasks — like you might see at a high-end sushi restaurant. Similarly, the steeper edge angle makes for a sharper blade that cuts cleanly through your food. Japanese knives also usually do not feature a heavy bolster or a full tang — helping save on weight in favor of better control. If clean cuts and high accuracy are your top concerns, Japanese is the way to go for your kitchen knives.

Ambidexterity

Left-Handed vs. Right-Handed

Extremely overlooked but abundantly important if you’re not a right-handed person — the ambidexterity of your kitchen knives is not often a consideration people have while shopping. In the case of German vs. Japanese chef blades, however, it’s a metric that should be considered. And there is a very simple reason for this: traditionally, German chef knives are ambidextrous, while Japanese knives are not.

Usually, German knife edges are sharpened on both sides of the blade — meaning the edge comes to a symmetrical peak allowing for right- or left-handed cuts without incident. The downside to a blade grind of this type is that it makes them less sharp, as the angle cannot be as steep as, say, a chisel ground edge. But that goes right in line with the overall workhorse utilitarianism of German chef knives.

Japanese knives, by contrast, are traditionally chisel-gound — meaning one side of the edge is flat and vertical, whereas the opposing side is ground toward the edge’s peak. This makes them extremely sharp, but it also means that they’re not ambidextrous. Clearly, not every single Japanese chef knife has an edge of this type, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on if you’re a left-handed chef.

Types Of Steel

Strength vs. Durability

To seemingly further the disparity in purpose between German and Japanese kitchen knives, the choice of steel says quite a bit about their intended usage overall. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible to outline all the possible steels used in these knives. But there is another way the steel quality can be gleaned: the Rockwell Scale. Designed to illustrate the overall hardness of steel, the Rockwell Scale assigns a value to a given steel, with higher numbers representing harder steels.

Most of the time, German manufacturers opt for relatively “soft” steels rated in the 56-60 range. The benefit of these steels mates well with the workhorse nature of German knives. This is because the softness of the metal makes these blades more resistant to chipping — meaning they’re more durable over time. It also means they need to be sharpened more often, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff when the overall lifespan of the knives is taken into account.

Japanese chef knives can often be found with steels rated between 58-62 on the Rockwell Scale. These harder steels hold an edge much better and are incredibly strong — making them perfect for precision tasks. Unfortunately, they are also a bit brittle and can be prone to chipping or even breaking if used too aggressively or with greater frequency. Like the rest of the knife design, the steel is made for accuracy and precision, but less so for volume and repetition.

Photo: Wusthof Classic Chef Knife

German Knives

Heavy Hitters

Spartan in their design and built with pure workhorse utility in mind, German chef’s knives do away with pomp and circumstance in favor of durability through high-volume tasks and a long lifespan. They might not look remarkable, but that’s probably because their makers’ focus is almost entirely on function. Some superb examples you can buy right now are as follows:

Mercer Culinary Genesis Chef Knife

With its high-carbon steel blade, this knife is superb at resisting corrosion and its synthetic Santoprene handle is ergonomic and grippy even when wet. In spite of this knife’s low price, it’s a sturdy and reliable kitchen blade backed up by a limited lifetime warranty.

Purchase: $30

Zwilling Professional “S” Chef Knife

Boasting a slightly beefier blade than the Mercer above, the Zwilling Professional “S” chef knife comes in six, eight, and 10-inch varieties — so you can choose the one that suits your kitchen and cutting style best. It’s also crafted from high-carbon stainless steel, making for excellent corrosion resistance, and it has a super-durable polymer handle.

Purchase: $100

Wusthof Classic Chef Knife

With one of the widest range of length options, the Wusthof classic chef knife might not look flashy, but it’s one of the most durable and versatile knives on the market. With a high-carbon stainless steel blade with a full tang, ergonomic and ultra-tough synthetic handle, and gently sloping blade shape, this knife is suited for a wide variety of cutting tasks — from high-volume dicing to detail-oriented meat-cutting.

Purchase: $120

Messermeister Meridian Elite Chef Knife

Like its brethren, the Messermeister Meridian Elite chef knife doesn’t look all that special. And that’s because the craftsmen who built it focused a good deal more on functionality, durability, etc. than they did on its appearance. Pick up this blade and try it out for yourself and you’ll quickly see why this is one of the best German chef knives on the market.

Purchase: $165

Photo: Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef Knife

Japanese Knives

Sleek Slicers

Perfect for precision cutting tasks and with a good deal of flourish in their designs — especially when created by legendary knifemakers — Japanese chef’s knives are beautiful, often flashy, razor sharp, and crafted from a wide variety of materials chosen for both their utility and appearance. A sample of the available options are as follows:

Kyocera Innovation Series Ceramic Santoku Knife

One of the few chef knives with a non-metallic ceramic blade, as opposed to a more-traditional steel blade, Kyocera’s Innovation Series Santoku knife is otherwise a prime example of how Japanese kitchen blades look and perform. Rustproof, balanced, lightweight, and easy to use — this is a knife you can be proud to use.

Purchase: $71

Miyabi Mizu SG2 Chef Knife

An example of the stylistic flourish common amongst Japanese chef knives, the Miyabi Mizu SG2 chef knife features a Damascus steel finish on the hammered blade that’s as gorgeous as it is functional — and actually helps to keep food from sticking to the blade. Mate that to its Micarta handle and you’ve got a formidable cutting tool for any kitchen.

Purchase: $200

Shun Hiro SG2 Chef Knife

A brand under the same umbrella as the fabled Zero Tolerance and Kershaw everyday carry knife brands, Shun’s Hiro is a worthy investment for anyone who values brilliant cutting power and remarkable beauty. Boasting a 65-layer Damascus and SG2 steel blade mated to a charcoal Pakkawood handle (far more durable than solid wood), this is a truly exceptional kitchen knife.

Purchase: $350

Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef Knife

Angular in its styling and premium in its construction, the Hinoki S1 Gyuto is an absolute stunner of a chef knife that’s built to last a lifetime of service in the hands of a master in the kitchen. Made from black carbon steel and your choice of three different hardwoods, this is the kind of chef knife you pass down to your children once you’re unable to cook anymore. Yes, it is expensive. Yes, it is worth every penny.

Purchase: $420

10 Best USA-Made Chef Knives

Germany and Japan are hardly the only places from which worthwhile kitchen blades come. In fact, some of the most elite of the bunch are made right here on our own soil. You can find them on our list of the best USA-made chef knives.

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